Considering the crippled state of the defending NBA champion Lakers’ roster, their game against the Nets on Saturday night at Barclays Center was a far cry from an NBA Finals preview. But after starting point guards Kyrie Irving and Dennis Schroder were ejected in the third quarter, the Lakers threw a knockout punch on their way to a 126-101 blowout victory that should let the Nets know how far they have to go to realize their title aspirations.
The Nets trailed by four points when the ejections took place with 9:41 left in the third quarter. The Lakers responded with a 22-9 run that included 11 points from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who hit a trio of three-pointers in that stretch for an 88-71 lead.
The Nets rallied within 11 points but ultimately were held to 19 in the third quarter. They trailed by as many as 28 points in the fourth quarter of the embarrassing loss and were outscored 60-39 after the ejections.
"I thought they were the aggressor," coach Steve Nash said. "They were more physical. They hit first. We didn’t match their physicality and competitive fire. This is a team missing a bunch of guys, and [reserves] get an opportunity and their eyes light up and they came out and played harder than us, played more physical than us. It’s a great lesson for us."
Kevin Durant led the Nets (36-17) with 22 points in 24 minutes. Irving exited with 18 points but zero assists, and LaMarcus Aldridge was the only other Net in double figures with 12 points. The Nets shot 5-for-27 from three-point range (18.5%).
Eight of the 11 healthy Lakers scored in double figures, topped by Andre Drummond with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Schroder had 19 points and Ben McLemore added 17. The Lakers (33-20) hit 19 of 34 three-pointers (55.9%), outrebounded the Nets 55-47 and forced 19 turnovers leading to 25 Lakers points.
In his second game back from a two-month absence to treat a strained hamstring, Durant returned to the starting lineup after playing 19 minutes off the bench in the Nets’ blowout of the Pelicans on Wednesday. James Harden (right hamstring strain) sat out for the fourth time in the past five games, but Landry Shamet returned from a sprained ankle.
The Lakers were far worse off from a health standpoint without injured superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, starters Marc Gasol and Kyle Kuzma and top reserve Wes Matthews.
"They just played with more urgency to start the game," Durant said. "They hit us in the mouth early, and we were fighting uphill the whole game. Then they got hot . . . They’re the champs. You’ve got to respect it."
Drummond, who was signed on the free-agent market after negotiating a buyout from Cleveland, was a load under the basket as the Lakers made seven of their first eight shots and took an 11-point lead. The Nets put together a 17-3 second-quarter run that included seven points from Irving and six from Durant to go ahead 56-52 but trailed 61-58 at halftime.
"He was great tonight," Aldridge said of Drummond. ‘But that’s on me. I was way too passive, couldn’t get my motor going. I’ll definitely do better at trying to set the tone for the team."
Durant didn’t want to hear it when asked if the ejections could have been handled differently by the officials. "No thoughts on that," he said. "That’s on them. They control the game. It doesn’t matter really if we agree with it or not.
"We were in the game, but I’m not going to blame it on the ejection for why the momentum switched. They got it going, so we should have got it going."